Can anything shock us anymore? New documents from Edward Snowden shows a never-before-disclosed program in which the National Security Agency is gathering hundreds of millions of address books from e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world. The amount of data being harvested is a "sizable fraction" of the accounts in the world, including many Americans, and is being analyzed to hidden connections and map relationships between foreign intelligence targets. Documents show a typical day brings in nearly 700,000 connections from sites like Facebook, Yahoo, Gmail, and Hotmail, along with 500,000 buddy lists from chat services.
"During a single day last year, the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers, according to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation. Those figures, described as a typical daily intake in the document, correspond to a rate of more than 250 million a year.
Each day, the presentation said, the NSA collects contacts from an estimated 500,000 buddy lists on live-chat services as well as from the in-box displays of Web-based e-mail accounts.
The collection depends on secret arrangements with foreign telecommunications companies or allied intelligence services in control of facilities that direct traffic along the Internet’s main data routes.
Although the collection takes place overseas, two senior U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged that it sweeps in the contacts of many Americans. They declined to offer an estimate but did not dispute that the number is likely to be in the millions or tens of millions."
According to the report, because the agency captures contact lists “on the fly” as they cross major Internet switches, rather than “at rest” on computer servers, it is not necessary for the NSA to notify the U.S. companies that host the information or to ask for help from them.
“We have neither knowledge of nor participation in this mass collection of webmail addresses or chat lists by the government,” said Google spokesman Niki Fenwick.
Facebook spokesman Jodi Seth said “we did not know and did not assist” in the NSA’s interception of contact lists.
Suzanne Philion, a Yahoo spokesman, said Monday in response to an inquiry from The Washington Post that Yahoo would begin encrypting all its e-mail connections beginning in January.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, said the agency “is focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets like terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers. We are not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans.”
The collection of contact lists in bulk would be illegal if done in the United States, but the Post said the agency can get around that restriction by intercepting lists from access points around the world.